Sunday, July 22, 2012
IITs: Islands of Excellence or Islands of Exclusiveness?
The recent debate on whether there should be a common entrance test for all engineering colleges in India or whether IITs should continue to maintain their own entrance test throws open various questions. While IITs refuse to dilute their admission process maintaining that this process is the key to producing top class graduates, the government contends that too many entrance tests burden the students and therefore would like to include the class 12 scores in the admission process.
I, on the other hand, think that this debate calls for a completely new look at the admission process to all premier institutes in India, whether they are IITs, NITs, IIMs, or others.
In our attempt to create islands of excellence we have created an admission system called entrance tests. Traditionally, in a country where people swore by their caste affiliations, where nepotism is a virtue, where entire social system was based on deep rooted discrimination, an entrance test which judged a person solely on the marks in an entrance test was greeted as a great achievement. Because of its apparent benefits, it created a new class of society which now swears by the ‘merit’ system, a new system which measures people solely by one single attribute – marks obtained in one exam. Now, each Indian is judged and measured by a number – called marks.
With the help from the British who created an objective selection process, India now holds the view that an entrance test is the only method to select candidates for any profession. Entrance tests are now the hallowed gates which only the worthy can pass through while others are all kept out. Indians came up with an entrance test for everything – to select the bureaucrats, to select the police officer, to create the army officers, to create the lawyers, to create the doctors, to create the engineers, and now a certain section of Indians believe that even a politician should pass a test.
For a while, such an unbiased entrance test became the savior of the middle class who otherwise would have had no chance to improve their economic or social status. Entrance tests emancipated the middle class, allowed them to quickly grab the new opportunities without having to bow down to the political bosses or the landlords. Objective tests became the goal and it yielded great results for the Indian middle class.
Over a period of time, the entrance tests became tough as the competition rose, and selection criteria became stringent. Only those middle class Indians who could afford expensive tuitions and tutorials could now pass these tests. From the beginning, these entrance tests did not take into account the fact that not all Indians were ready to take them on. There were many Indians whose social and economic conditions did not allow them to prepare well for these entrance tests. Also, these entrance tests did not ensure that the classroom was diverse enough to roughly reflect the composition of actual population of the country.
Any attempt to make the classroom more diverse or accommodate those sections which are backward was strongly opposed by the middle class, which has now occupied the available positions in education and administration. Taking the first mover’s advantage, the middle class does not want to dilute the admission process to include other elements into the selection procedure, such as one’s social and economic background. They do not seem to realize that the current admission process makes a classroom composed of only very selected few sections of the society not reflective of the composition of real society.
This middle class swears by these entrance tests without realizing if these entrance tests are one dimensional, narrow in its selection process, helping only those who already enjoy access to certain amenities. The entrance tests have entered the pantheon of many sacred objects Indians have. They don’t pay attention to another class of Indians, the lower class, which comprises nearly half of India, who do not seem to get through this selection process. While the middle class was busy appropriating opportunities that the new Indian economy threw open, those millions others were completely left out.
It’s high time we realize and admit that emphasis on the scores from a single test does not constitute a perfect admission system. A person is made of many other things than just a mere score or rank from an entrance test. No society can be equitable if it laid so much stress on one exam’s results. Such an admission procedure would not take into account the background of a person, the social handicaps, and the disadvantages of one’s origins. It would not take into account the biases and discriminations of the society which make the people unequal before entering this entrance test. It would not judge a person by his character, his passion, or his determination, but only his ability to avail the necessary amenities by which he becomes perfect in mastering in cracking a test. Such an admission process would not have a role to play in creating this nation inclusive, in making this society equitable.
In its mindless pursuit of ranks and scores, it misses out on the objective of producing real excellence while it completely negates the goal of creating an inclusive society.
Are we sure that students who pass with really high scores in the topics of Math, Physics and Chemistry become good engineers? How come we don’t produce high quality engineering products in India then? How come those institutes in other countries which seem to accommodate students from various background and social groups seem to become world class institutes producing top notch engineers, world class research and Nobel Prize winners?
We have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Is there no place for diversity in our premier institutes? Is there no place for accommodating students with passion and interest but do not score high in the entrance test? Does the current admission system based purely on scores obtained in one entrance test guarantee that the candidate actually becomes a good engineer?
A comment from a professor of IIT that he cannot teach a class which includes candidates from lower castes because of their low scores does not bode well for future of India. If a premier institute can only take the top 1% of the country to mold them into engineers, but anything less than top 1% would dilute the classroom’s excellence, speaks volumes about the inability of the institute to create top class engineers. Instead it shows clearly that the only reason these institutes produce top class engineers is because it allows only top class candidates to enter. Actually, one can even doubt the efficacy of such institutes. There is a strong case to suggest that these institutes actually dumb down these engineers. If top 1% students of India all go to the same institutes and yet those institutes do not produce top quality inventors, engineers, world class research or any Nobel Prize winners our doubts only get stronger. If none of these institutes are listed even in the top 200 in the world, we can strongly cast a doubt on efficacy of such institutes and their admission process.
The time has come for Indian institutes to mature up. The admission procedures across all premier institutions have to become more subjective while adhering to strong objective goals. It has to take into account the passion, the interest of the candidate, his academic performance, his entrance test scores, and his socio-economic background. Only a subjective evaluation which is based on very stringent objective goals can select the candidates on various scales – from selecting those who have strong passion and interest but have not performed well in tests to selecting those who come from disadvantaged socio-economic groups.